Sunday, January 31, 2010

The horror, the horror!

When I was a teenager, growing up in the small town of Low Expectations, Co. Durham, I tended to resort to escapism via books and role playing games. If you are a well-mannered, shy, gay teenager who is always top of the class, you can pretty much guarantee that real life is not going to be a lot of fun. I joined the Dungeons and Dragons club at school (which was run by a nice boy 2 years older than me, who I always saw getting beaten up - a charming glimpse into my own future). And the idea that you could play a game which didn't have a board, but relied on your imagination was a revelation. Role playing games and The Golden Girls are pretty much the only things about the 1980s that I can remember without needing to do breathing exercises.

My favourite role playing game wasn't Dungeons and Dragons though. It was Call of Cthulhu. A game inspired by the short stories of sci-fi/horror writer H P Lovecraft. The game was set in the 1920s, in Lovecraft's fictional town of Arkham. The players took on investigative roles, in order to unearth scary cults which worshipped giagantic, hideous monsters (gods) that had been around forever. The game's dark premise was that it was almost impossible to "win". Instead, the characters would go insane or get killed by dabbling in things they didn't understand. My favourite bit of the game was whenever your character witnessed or experienced something awful (like waiting up in a coffin or seeing a fragment of a corpse) and then they had to make a "SAN roll" - which meant you rolled the dice to see how many sanity points you lost. When they were all gone you went bonkers and had to be locked up.

It was recommended that you read some H P Lovecraft in order to get a better feel for the game, but there weren't any bookshops in Low Expectations, Co. Durham, and so I never got a chance to read them. However, last month I spotted a huge compendium of all of Lovecraft's works in my local Waterstones (which is 30 seconds away from where I live), so I bought it, and it's been bed-time reading since.

If you can get past Lovecraft's obvious racism, the stories are quite gripping. Most of them are quite short and the characters in them often only seem to be on the verge of finding something or making sense of it, but taken together they contribute towards something bigger. A common theme involves characters stumbling upon enormous underground secret cities which have been undisturbed for millenia, and were built by aliens. Despite appearing empty, there is still something nasty down there, which may be freed and will possess, kill or drive insane the protaganist. Lovecraft is often unable to describe the phenomena in his stories, instead relying on adjectives like unspeakable or indescribable. "Not known of this earth" is also quite common. In one story, The Colour out of Space, a meteor crash-lands near a small farm, and out come weird colours that nobody has ever seen before. In other stories, a city contains weird angles and geomotrical shapes that don't make sense to human eyes. I tend to agree that the best horror comes from what is suggested rather than what is shown, so this doesn't bother me. I'll always prefer the Blair Witch Project over something like Saw.

However, if does make me wonder why Lovecraft's work hasn't been exploited more in film. The 1980s film Reanimator is quite a straightforward translation of one of his stories.

But there doesn't seem to be a great deal else. I tracked down a rather low-budget recent film called Cthulu and watched it over Christmas. Interestingly, the film's main protaganist is gay, and this is handled in a way which, while important to the story, doesn't make it into a "gay issue" film.

There are also a number of audio plays of Lovecraft's stories by a company called Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. They are done in the style of a 1920s radio drama (complete with fake adverts for cigarettes).

And another recent film, The Call of Cthulu has been made by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. It's a silent, black and white movie - and obviously a lot of love went into making it.

But it seems as if Lovecraft is yet to make it big in Hollywood, which at the moment, seems more enamoured of zombies and vampires. But just like his silently waiting monsters, miles below the surface of the sea, maybe Lovecraft's time will come one day. I hope so.


ukjarry said...

You’re right to see similarities between “Blair Witch” and Lovecraft. The film does what a lot of Lovecraft stories do. His stories are usually diaries or memoirs. The narrator goes along finding out weird hints and getting more and more agitated. The patented Lovecraft ending is that the manuscript stops abruptly with the writer going hysterical just as he’s about to encounter the unspeakable horror. Well, “Blair Witch” does the same – supposedly reclaimed video diaries – and just as the leads encounter the Witch, everything goes freaky, and the tape stops rolling.

Two Lovecraft films I remember from Saturday afternoons as a teenager. “The Dunwich Horror” was a 1970 adaptation with Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee (of “lousy with virginity” fame). And there’s Vincent Price in “The Haunted Palace” (1963).

mymy said...

There's also John Carpenter's homage "In The Mouth of Madness".

Tyler said...

Here is a little cameo I think cthulhu did to raise his status before the release of his film